How to Understand Fate and Free Will?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
I want to know about the concept of fate or destiny in Islam. Many people say that everything is pre-decided for Man, and that he would get only those things, which are written in his fate.
- It is our very lack of knowledge that gives us free will. God’s knowledge covers everything created, its past, and its future.
- Destiny as conceived by Islam, therefore, does not take away our freedom of choice and action.
The question of fate and free will is one of the most intriguing topics in metaphysics and religion.
Man feels absolutely powerless regarding many of the circumstances in which he/she finds him/herself.
One might feel that there are so many givens, which one has to take for granted, and nothing can be done about them.
On the other hand, there are many areas where one feels free to act.
Look at the marvelous progress of humanity through the centuries. If humans were mere puppets, could we have managed all these wonderful achievements, which have made us so proud of human potential?
From the Quranic point of view, Man is not completely a master of his fate; nor is he a puppet subject to the hazards of destiny. It is true that God’s sovereignty is all pervading and nothing falls outside its purview.
This means that God knows everything and it is according to His will, things happen here.
The universe is completely subject to the overriding power of God, and nothing happens without God willing it to be so.
However, God not only created everything, but He determined its nature and scope.
Man’s Free Choice
In His infinite wisdom and mercy, He gave Man limited power and great freedoms, including the freedom of choice.
It is because of this autonomy, enjoyed by Man, that he/she is held accountable for the individual deeds.
The Holy Quran says:
That man can have nothing but what he strives for;
Surah 53 Verse 39
… Verily never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (with their own souls). …
Surah 13 Verse 11
Say: “With God is the argument that reaches home: if it had been His will, He could indeed have guided you all.”
Surah 6 Verse 149
Then shall anyone who has done an atom’s weight of good, see it!
And anyone who has done an atom’s weight of evil, shall see it.
Surah 99 Verses 7 – 8
In fact the concept of qadar (destiny), used in the Quran often, means a measure or the latent possibilities with which God created Man and all things of Nature.
For example, God says:
… it is He who created all things, and ordered (qadara) them in due proportions.
Surah 25 Verse 2
In this verse, destiny implies the scope and potential of things. This means their latent capabilities.
There is a hadith, which says that God wrote down the decrees regarding the created world, fifty thousand years, before He created the heavens and the earth.
The point to be noted here is that this does not, in any way, mean that God created a universe, finished off and complete, bound to the iron rules of Nature.
The idea behind qadar is that the creation of this universe was in accordance with the grand design of the Creator.
This means that there is no element of chance in the creation of this universe. Everything is well arranged and well planned.
So this is not a kind of clockwork universe where God simply winds up the clock and then lets it run. The Holy Quran clearly says that God is constantly active in Creation:
God! There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them.
Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).
Surah 2 Verse 255
This verse indicates that God does not feel tired or sleepy in spite of the fact that He is constantly active.
Muhammad Iqbal, the renowned Islamic poet, has written:
‘Divine knowledge must be conceived as a living creative activity, to which the objects that appear to exist in their own right are organically related.
By conceiving God’s knowledge as a kind of reflecting mirror, we no doubt save His foreknowledge of future events. But, it is obvious that we do so at the expense of His freedom.
The future certainly pre-exists in the organic whole of God’s creative life, but it pre-exists as an open possibility, not as a fixed order of events with definite outlines.’
Time as an abstract concept – encompassing the past, present and future – is very much relative.
It is, however, a great ‘present’ for the All-Seeing God. The whole continuum of time lies before Him in the shape of now.
Knowledge is an act of creative activity and not the mere reflection of it. When He decrees a thing it happens and He sees it before it happens. God in Islam is therefore a free Creator with foreknowledge.
God’s knowledge, however, is not like our knowledge. God’s knowledge covers everything created, its past and its future.
… With God is the Decision, in the past and in the Future…
Surah 30 Verse 4
But God is the creator and we are the created. Our knowledge is limited in ways that God’s knowledge is not.
It is our very lack of knowledge which gives us free will. We cannot know our future and to a large extent we cannot control it. Our decisions are based on our understanding of the way the world works.
Are these decisions free from God’s command?
Not really, but for all practical purposes we inevitably see them as free choices, we cannot do otherwise – that is our nature.
We are held accountable only for things we understand. Our deeds are judged by their intentions.
So just as someone who punches his fist into a brick wall cannot claim injustice when it hurts, nor can we claim any injustice if we disobey God’s moral laws, when we know them, and get punished.
We “know” that the wall exists and that it is hard and that is the reality we deal with. The ultimate reality is however, that God could make that wall disappear just before your fist reached it.
The concept of qadar, therefore, indicates that we must seek harmony with God’s rules of human nature and nature at large, and consciously submit to His will.
Destiny and Free Choice
Destiny as conceived by Islam, therefore, does not take away our freedom of choice and action.
It is our willful choice of those actions from our inherent possibilities that are in harmony with God’s will that earns us our reward from God. Thus, qadar can be a source of inspiration and encouragement for us, and it really opens up vast fields of human activity.
It need not make us utterly powerless or helpless; on the contrary, it can be a source of inspiration and encouragement.
Indeed, when God has set certain rules in His decree as to how things evolve, even these things can be changed through prayers.
The prophet stressed that only sincere prayers can change the way events unfold, and that true worship and sincere submission to God can raise the believer above the normal ways of nature: Prayers can and do result in “personal miracles” – events or experiences which we consider almost impossible and certainly highly improbable.
From an Islamic point of view, Man is free for all practical purposes. He/she has no excuse for making the wrong choice and then blaming qadar or fate, any more than a man punching his fist into a wall can blame the laws of nature. He knew the consequences of his actions for all practical purposes and he shouldn’t expect a miracle!
The foregoing means, that we should not worry about what God has written for us, since we can never know it; but our duty, here and now, is to strive for the best in this world and the next. Then, good results will follow, insha’Allah.
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By Professor Shahul Hameed